Cloaca Maxima



Hell is relative, subjective. Whether one subscribes to the view of Dante Alighieri (as guided by the poet Virgil) that Hell is as varied as the souls whose eternal torment it administers, or to the view of Tertullian, St. Augustine and other ‘Church Fathers’ that it is the same for everyone consigned there by fate and moral error: the classic ‘Fire and Brimstone’, the result is the same. Hell is a subject worthy of our meditations.


Such a student of Hell’s multifarious aspects was the Belgian Symbolist poet Iwan Gilkin (1858 – 1924). In the early 1890s, he announced his embarkation on a project in which he would follow the general outline of Dante Alighieri’s ‘Divine Comedy’ (‘Inferno’, ‘Purgatorio’ and ‘Paradiso’), but would recount in verse a description of these three levels of moral existence for a more modern mankind (he was influenced by Baudelaire and Lautréamont in particular). The first volume ‘La Nuit’ (‘Night’) appeared in 1893. The other two projected volumes ‘Twilight’ (corresponding to Dante’s ‘Purgatorio’) and ‘Day’ (corresponding to Dante’s ‘Paradiso’) never appeared. Such is the weight of Hell that the unfortunate poet himself was unable to find redemption from it, even in verse, and ascend to more sidereal literary realms (as embodied by the final two volumes). Nonetheless, ‘La Nuit’ is still considered Gilkin’s masterpiece. Earth is not exempt from the stratification of moral existence to be found in the afterlife. Earth can be Heaven, Hell or anything in between. It depends upon who is doing the recounting, the experiencing.

Taken from this collection of verse, then, is a poem regarding the ‘Hell on Earth’ of Filth.

[Note: English translation appears below original French text]



À la face du ciel, chez les peuples du Gange,
Toutes les saletés des villes sans égout
- Pour la mouche et le ver délicieux ragoût -
Bavent sur le pavé leur innommable fange.

Des tas de détritus et de déjections
Où dans l'ordure luit la blancheur des cadavres,
Forment des continents de caps mous et de havres
Qu'un liquide puant baigne d'infections.

Bouses, fumiers malsains, carcasses et charognes
Brasillent au soleil qui fait fumer leur jus.
Les vautours vidangeurs et les aigles goulus
Disputent ce festin aux macabres cigognes.

Puis, repus de poisons, loin des lieux habités,
Ils cherchent pour mourir les hauts monts solitaires.
- Les poètes aussi, pareils aux stercoraires,
Mangent les excréments des boueuses cités.

Les intestins chargés de pourriture humaine,
Dont le venin leur brûle et leur corrompt le sang,
Sur leurs Himalayas ils crèvent en poussant
Un effrayable cri de douleur et de haine.

Iwan Gilkin, La Nuit (chez Fischbacher), 1897.



Cloaca Maxima

Bared to the skies, among the Ganges' people found,
Every Filth of cities sewerless
- For the Fly and Worm: Saucy Delicatesse ! -
Drooling their unspeakable slop upon the ground.

The heaps of rubbish and evacuations 
Where in the trash gleams the pallor of cadavers, 
Forming continents of soft capes and havres 
As a stinking liquid bathes infections.

Dungs, unhealthy manures, carcasses and carrions bob, 
Grill in the sun, which makes their juices smoke;
Scavenging vultures and gluttonous eagles poke;
Disputing this feast with storks macabre.

Then, bloated with poisons, away from house and town, 
They seek a Death on lonesome, craggy peaks. 
- The poets too, like these scat-smeared beaks, 
Devour the shit of sludgy cities down.

In Mankind's intestines packed with all that's rotten, 
A scorching venom befouls their noisome blood, 
They grunt, blast, push in Himalayan flood;
Shrieks painful, hateful; not soon forgotten.


Iwan Gilkin, La Nuit (chez Fischbacher), 1897.

[English translation: Sardonique Schadenfreude Rictus / Dr. Bathybius, 2006]

 Image: the Burning Ghats at Benares/Varanasi, India (circa 1900).

P.S. Those wishing to hear this delightful little ditty set to music (a melancholic 'Trip Hop' number) are most cordially invited to visit


..and listen to track #5.